Emmanuel Vincent is empowering the international scientific community to play a leading role in tackling online misinformation on scientific issues. He is building a global campaign in which scientists serve the public by weeding dubious scientific claims out of digital platforms through a consensus-driven rating system.
The New Idea
Emmanuel Vincent is creating a new role for scientists in a global campaign to counter dissemination of demonstrably false pseudo-scientific information for political or financial gain. He enlists scientists worldwide to become expert evaluators of purported scientific information circulated on the internet, building on something scientists do well, review and comment on others’ assertions. Instead of conducting academic peer-reviews, Emmanuel has them volunteer as subject-matter experts who rate the veracity of dubious claims circulating on the internet. His non-profit organization Science Feedback has built a system that flags questionable content, shares it with experts strict selected according to strict membership criterion, and collects their comments and ratings. It’s a consensus-driven system that allows for a range of views, but ultimately assigns a rating. Emmanuel then works in partnership with major digital platforms such as Facebook and Google to apply these ratings to the automated handling of content, allowing or limiting the “viral” spread of the claim. Since purveyors of sensationalist, pseudo-scientific information is often simply chasing profit as delivered in clicks, reducing the exposure essentially makes it no longer profitable to manipulate the public in this way.
Emmanuel makes it clear that he does not favor censorship, and that people should be left alone with their personal beliefs. He sees the spread of false information as an opportunity to educate people about science, not to ridicule anyone’s beliefs. Therefore, Science Feedback does not advocate for false articles to be deleted, but that factuality be a consideration when a global network of scientists points out a false or misleading claim.
Beyond working directly with the digital platforms, Emmanuel is also advising the European Commission on how to pursue regulatory solutions. Potential grant from the EU will help Science Feedback develop its platform and take what it learns to suggest elements of an effective regulatory structure.
Instead, he is convinced scientists need to play a new role and have a responsibility to take in the fact-checking scene because they are the ones who have the expertise. Scientist himself, he gives them a voice and uses their credibility to decrease the level of misleading information by working with journalists and influence digital platforms to go from viral ranking criteria to reliability criteria.
To do so, Emmanuel has been building and empowering a worldwide network of 385 scientists (starting with climatologists and health experts), including 150 who have proactively volunteered to join, just because they felt he answered an actual need. He provides them with a robust yet simple methodology of fact-checking and gives them access to a database of influential articles that need to be checked, and that he feeds in real-time. Thus, the scientist community can organize itself and is able to give its point of view collectively and responsively, allowing to decrease the level of fake news. Indeed, the community has published the review of almost 130 articles, and at least 10% of it have been publicly corrected. Through this action, scientists manage to educate journalists and editors to sort fact from misleading information and to be more vigilant on the type of information they release and highlight. As an example, following their multiple feedbacks, Forbes has dramatically reduced the reach of a contributor promoting climate misinformation (he went from more than 1 million views for his articles in 2015 to only 5 800 views in 2017).
But Emmanuel knows that he won’t have a significant impact if he doesn’t influence the digital platforms responsible for the virality of the fake news. That is why he makes part of Facebook’s pool of international fact-checkers, helping them identify misleading news and pointing out their sources. His plan now is to develop the same kind of partnership with Youtube and Google, who see Emmanuel’s initiative as a potential solution to their reputation issues. Alongside this work, Emmanuel is also lobbying European institutions to recognize the responsibility of these giant platforms in the scientific fake news propagation through regulation and legislation. The recent partnership he built with the French ministry of Research will help him develop technological means of observation of the digital platforms in order to document and demonstrate the way they rank the information.
Online misinformation is an increasing international issue that threatens the correct functioning of our democratic societies as it prevents citizens from making informed decisions. Indeed, democracies require a well-informed public able to develop critical thinking. The threat increases when it comes to scientific data as it can negatively influence people’s beliefs and personal habits regarding major social issues such as climate change, health, biotechnologies, energies, etc. The anti-vax movement is one of the most relevant examples of the way online information can have an influence on real-world behaviors, ending up with more and more families feeling hesitant about vaccination. For example, a 2018 World Health Organization report shown a rise in cases of measles in almost every region of the world, with 30% more cases in 2017 than 2016, mentioning complacency, collapsing health systems but also a rise in fake news about the vaccine were behind the rise.
With a global mistrust towards traditional media outlets and an increasing number of people reading their news through social media that select the articles for them, the information ecosystem has been highly disrupted in recent years. Today, 80% of traffic to news websites is driven by Google and Facebook. The spread of fake news is exacerbated by the way these digital platforms base the ranking of the information on virality: the more sensational and emotional an article is, the more it is shared and the more visibility it receives thanks to algorithms. As a result, perpetuating fake news has become a business for some websites, since it attracts readers thus generating revenues. Additionally, people’s manipulation through misinformation campaigns has been highly facilitated, and it is particularly the case when it comes to scientific data. Indeed, when reading about topics that requires a certain expertise, citizens will naturally believe pseudo-scientists without questioning the information relayed. Google, Facebook and YouTube, although at the heart of the problem, have been slow, reluctant to accept any responsibility, sometimes on free-speech grounds.
To tackle this new issue, the journalism community has started structuring fact-checking activities around the world. However, it is mostly focused on news and politics, leaving science-based information uncovered, and not addressing the platforms responsibility. Therefore, information that claims to be science based is not effectively fact-checked, leading even “informed” and educated citizens to be easily misled. Although some scientists individually respond to misinformation, their impact is extremely limited since they don’t have many options to apply their expertise to public issues beyond traditional ways that doesn’t reach out the general public. Given their lack of organization, they remain powerless spectators of the dissemination of misleading information related to their field.
As a climatologist, Emmanuel started his initiative by building a community of peers who were willing to debunk climate change misinformation, especially in English speaking areas. In 2015, the “Climate Feedback” community was born, followed 3 years later by the “Health Feedback” community. Today, the global network is made of 385 scientists, comprising over 200 invited by Emmanuel directly and another 150 who have proactively sought to join, feeling an urgent need to tackle the problem, and seeing it as an additional opportunity to give visibility to their work. Indeed, more and more scientists of the network mention their contribution to Science Feedback in their resume and an increasing number of professors advise young scientists to join the community. This reputation is particularly due to Emmanuel’s ability to convene first-class scientists to efficiently and independently fact-check articles. To do so, Science Feedback has developed a strict membership criterion: every member must have an active job title and frequently publish articles in established and recognized “top-tier” scientific reviews. There can be no question about the scientific credentials of his experts.
Emmanuel has provided this global network with a robust methodology using peer-review principles and a four-step process that allows scientists to analyze influential online content within forty-eight hours. First, he selects an article to assess, based on subject matter, relevance in public discourse and potential digital influence (audience size and virality). Then, he solicits an average of 6 scientists with relevant expertise to participate in the article or claim review. They individually and independently assess the information and evaluate its overall credibility based on criteria (accuracy, source quality, reasoning, etc.). The final rating is the average of all the reviewers’ ratings and can be negative -invalidating the accuracy of the article- but also positive -then approving the writer’s approach. Eventually, a Science Feedback editor writes a summary of the most salient points brought by the scientists and provides feedback to journalists and publishers about the accuracy of the content published in their outlets. All feedback is promoted on Science Feedback’s websites, across their social media platforms, and shared with key media platforms like Facebook and Google.
Since the beginning of the initiative, 150 articles have been reviewed, with at least 10% being publicly corrected. Through this action, scientists manage to help journalists and publishers sort fact from misleading information and be more vigilant on the type of sources they use. For example, following Science Feedback’s reviews, Forbes has radically hardened its editorial policy regarding the quality of sources solicited and veracity of content published. As a result, the number of misleading climate change articles Forbes releases has drastically decreased.
To be able to attract and manage a higher number of contributors and articles, Science Feedback is building a web platform to automate the review process. Beginning in September 2019, scientists will be able to log-in to the Science Feedback platform and see articles in need of verification. Their online review and feedback will automatically be sent to the editor. This user-friendly tool makes it easy for a scientist to include this practice in his/her professional daily life considering the autonomy it allows. Moreover, this technology increases Science Feedback’s responsiveness to review an important amount of misinformation as it is released and trending, thus decreasing its virality from the very beginning of its propagation.
Since he knew his project needed visibility and credibility to have an influence on major actors, Emmanuel applied to obtain accreditation by the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) and Science Feedback. He became the first member of the network pioneering a community approach to “fact-checking” in 2017. This accreditation gave Emmanuel the credibility and license to approach major digital actors like Facebook, Google or YouTube, key targets for Science Feedback. Indeed, Emmanuel has identified the responsibility these digital platforms have in the accelerated propagation of fake news through their ranking criteria and algorithms and is determined to help them change their practices and become more liable. Consequently, today Science Feedback already works directly with Google and Facebook. For example, every time a Google search is made on an initial misleading claim -often the provocative title of an article- Science Feedback’s review is ranked among the first results, thanks to a whitelist system that tags corrected news.
Science Feedback works also directly with Facebook as a as a third-party fact checking organization to identify science misleading news and websites that produce them. Indeed, if a claim or an article has been rated as false by Science Feedback, all users who shared it on Facebook receives a notification with a link to the article review. The groups and domains who repeatedly share false information see their distribution on Facebook decreases, and their ability to pay to promote their posts revoked. For instance, in Spring 2019, Science Feedback managed to discredit Breitbart News, a controversial far-right American news and opinion website. Their misleading article, and 14 other articles from websites relaying the news have been flagged as “false” on Facebook. Thousands of readers who shared the information on social media received a notification from the platform inviting them to read Science Feedback’s review. Facebook’s influence forced Breitbart to react, which it had never previously done, despite preexisting reviews from Science Feedback. If the website publishes false information again, it runs the risk of being qualified as a “repeat offender”, and Facebook will modify its algorithm to decrease its overall visibility.
Similarly, Emmanuel’s objective is to develop services adapted to Google and YouTube’s needs, and hence cover the three major information platforms. Considering their influence in the fake news system, partnering with them not only allows him to decrease the visibility misinformation have on the web but also to develop a better understanding and knowledge of the system, knowing it from “inside”. This kind of partnership represents also an interesting source of revenue for Science Feedback.
Meanwhile, Emmanuel is influencing a new European legislative framework for these platforms that will recognize their responsibility in the problem and urge them find solutions to tackle it. He has strategically chosen to concentrate his effort on European institutions because he knows they are the most stringent in the world. To do so, he leads targeted advocacy efforts relying on specific research programs related to climate and health. For example, he recently submitted a proposal to the European Parliament to fund a research that could statistically measure the responsibility that YouTube and Google have on the dissemination of misinformation specifically related to health. He has chosen purposely this topic because he knows this is a major political concerns. Additionally, he recently launched a program funded by the French Ministry of Research to develop technological means of observation of Google. It will allow him to demonstrate the platform’s responsibility in the promotion of misinformation -first related to climate- through the calculation of the proportion of unreliable information it relays through its ranking system. His objective is to urge Google to track the credibility of sources and systematically relegate misleading sources to the end search results list. This way, spreading misinformation will thus become increasingly complicated for influencers and less financially attractive for websites, blogs and news publishers.
As Science Feedback grows and gets more visibility, to maintain a high level of independence and not being accused of working for the interest of anyone, Emmanuel pays attention to multiply sources of funding (fees charged for factchecking services, crowdsourcing, companies donations with small tickets, public or university grants). He doesn’t pay scientists for their reviews, he envisions a world where it is part of their role to give access to accurate information to citizens and this is why he is planning to enlarge his community continuously until he reaches one million scientists worldwide. Moreover, he will soon expand to new languages and new fields like Energy, Biotechnologies but also History or Social sciences.
As the son of an engineer and nurse, Emmanuel Vincent has always been fascinated by researchers, such as Einstein and Pasteur. As a child, he spent much time watching documentaries, trying to satisfy his curiosity around nature, the environment and social issues. His desire to contribute to society’s evolution, combined with his passion for seeking the truth led him to choose a researcher path. At the age of 22, while studying Geophysics at Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, France, he volunteered to join a scientific expedition in the archipelago of Vanuatu. While there, he served as a schoolteacher for underprivileged children. This confirmed his willingness to choose an impactful career and his current field of study. He completed a PhD at the University Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris, France, and a post-doctoral fellowship in oceanography and climate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.
When he arrived in the United States as a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fellow in 2012, Emmanuel was stunned by the large-scale climate skepticism, quickly understanding that misinformation in the medias was at its origin. As a climatologist, he experienced high frustration reading helplessly false information without being able to act and share his knowledge with citizens. Simultaneously, one of his close family members had just been indoctrinated by a religious cult. Driven by his motivation to struggle against any kind of manipulation, Emmanuel decided to abandon his brilliant career as a researcher and launched Climate Feedback in 2015, which would soon become Science Feedback.